Space Based Radar: the dilemma
by Taylor Dinerman
|If the SBR spacecraft turn out to be smaller, harder to detect, and more maneuverable in orbit than the Lacrosse ones, they will be far more useful on both operational and tactical levels.|
The Lacrosse satellites certainly helped during the first “March to Baghdad” phase of the Iraq war. They negated the Baathist Army’s ability to hide in the great sandstorm, but since then, there has not been a public occasion when these very expensive satellites have proven themselves. In fact, because they are so large and because an adversary can know when they are overhead—and thus refrain from doing anything they don’t want the US to know about—they may give the US false sense that it knows what is and is not happening in areas of interest.
The Space Based Radar (SBR) project is supposed to get around this problem by having a constellation of at least nine satellites in orbit. America’s foes will find it hard to do anything if they are under nearly constant surveillance. If the SBR spacecraft turn out to be smaller, harder to detect, and more maneuverable in orbit than the Lacrosse ones, they will be far more useful on both operational and tactical levels. If the program works as advertised, it will help cement US space information superiority for the 2015–2025 decade, a time when the US may find itself faced with new challenges in Asia and elsewhere. Such a capability will be just as important for crisis management as for actual warfighting.
SBR is supposed to be equipped with a Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) capability at least as good as that onboard today’s JSTARS radar surveillance aircraft. This is going to require a lot of onboard power. If SBR has the kind of huge solar arrays that are found on the Lacrosse, this will to some extent negate its ability to remain inconspicuous. It will be interesting to see how the contractors propose to deal with this problem. In the recent past, they have developed some extremely efficient photovoltaic panels, but these may not be mature enough for use on an operational system.
As reported in Defense News, the Air Force hopes to launch a quarter-scale demonstration satellite in 2008 as a tool for helping to mature some of the needed technologies, such as antennas and transmission relays. This is a step in the right direction. However, it will do little to show how the power problem can be resolved. The best way to do that may be to place a similar, if not identical, power package on other spacecraft to be designed, built, and launched well before the final plans for the SBR are set in stone: say, sometime around 2010 or 2011. The Air Force should look for an opportunity to fly the SBR power package, either on another DoD spacecraft (perhaps a testbed for GPS 3), or on one that NASA or NOAA are planning to put into low Earth orbit.
There is also the problem of imagery distribution. The new national intelligence structure is supposed to facilitate the distribution of useful information to those who need it at the tactical levels. If SBR is to be a success the data will have to flow in an easily comprehensible form to deployed forces, in near real-time. If the problems that some claim exists with the Lacrosse are still happening, there is no reason to believe that SBR will be any better. One hopes that these are the sorts of questions that Congress is asking behind closed doors.
|If the problems that some claim exists with the Lacrosse are still happening, there is no reason to believe that SBR will be any better.|
For many years now, Congress has resisted funding Space Based Radar, or anything like it, and it has done so in the face of an obvious need by the military warfighters for such a system. In the end, one has to assume that Congress may know something the rest of us do not. The cost growth and constant reorganization of the program are all bad signs. The program managers have not been able to make this system “get well.” From the outside, it would seem that there is a disconnect between the available mature technology and core requirements.
Whoever gets the unenviable task of replacing Peter Teets in his jobs as “space czar”, NRO Director, and Secretary of the Air Force, is going to have to take yet another skeptical look at the whole program. Perhaps he or she may find that they need to spend more on developing the basic technology and less on the program itself. Congress may be more generous when it comes to funding basic science and technology for SBR than in funding the program itself.